By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Robert Gribbin, Russell Johnson, John Harmon
Directed by Irvin Berwick
Written by John Buckley
Irvin Berwick clearly knew that the best way to hook your audience is to let ‘em sample the goods. His 1977 feature has a sick corker of a cold open, with pained shrieks piercing the pre-titles blackness seconds before a fresh female corpse falls abruptly into the frame, the words HITCH HIKE TO HELL slapped across her face in screaming red. From tip to tailpipe, this is skeezy, sleazy, golden-era grindhouse fare, and Arrow Video has rescued it from the cinematic trash heap: presenting it for the first time on Blu-ray in a brand new 2K transfer!
Like all the very best exploitation filmmakers of the day, Irvin Berwick was a journeyman: willing and able to do whatever it took to produce, shoot, and market a flick regardless of budget (if there was any at all), and do so with something next-door-to style. A former piano prodigy who cut his teeth at Columbia and Universal International as a dialogue coach for the likes of William Castle (THE TINGLER) and Jack Arnold (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON), Berwick would eventually strike out on his own to produce and direct. His debut feature, THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS (1959) was an obvious attempt to cash-in on CREATURE, and in true B-movie artist fashion, he would follow the money wherever it went. This would lead him to noirish T&A (THE 7TH COMMANDMENT, STRANGE COMPULSION), teensploitation (MALIBU HIGH) and even Baptist propaganda films (SUDDENLY THE LIGHT).
HITCH HIKE TO HELL, in true exploitation fashion, feels especially “ripped from the headlines,” emerging as it did in the bloody wake of Ted Bundy, Ed Kemper, L.A.’s Skid Row Slasher, the Zodiac Killer, and the Santa Rosa hitchhiker murders. Hitchhiking had been linked with delinquency for decades previous but with the rise of the American serial killer, the practice took on a new level of danger that Berwick and screenwriter John Buckley must have been eager to capitalize on.
Robert Gribbin stars as Howard Martin, a dry-cleaning delivery boy who spends his days trundling around California in a bright red van. Between deliveries, the affable motorist picks up hitchhiking girls with seemingly with good intentions, only to rape and strangle them to death should they let slip that they’re runaways with parental issues. With a long-suffering, overbearing mother at home (Dorothy Bennett), Howard’s spontaneous response to the ungratefulness of teen girls is violence—a temporary psychotic break triggered by his own hitchhiking sister’s abandonment of the family prior to the film. With memories of the killings starting to encroach upon his everyday life, Howard finds himself on a collision course with the local police, headed by Captain J.W. Shaw (Russell Johnson, “The Professor” of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND fame).
Gribbin (the kind of dorkily handsome All-American fella for which “cornfed” might be too sophisticated a descriptor) holds the screen admirably as the Norman Batesian man-boy/psychotic killer. A Pavlov’s dog in coke-bottle lenses, Howard’s twitchy transitions from good samaritan to murderous lout are almost comedic in their obviousness and frequency, but the attacks that follow are intense enough to set your teeth on edge. Filmed in sunny Los Angeles, the rest of the cast is largely made up of students plucked from Berwick’s own low-budget filmmaking course at UCLA. These young non-actors give HITCH HIKE TO HELL a regional flavor and, in the case of the murder victims, a sense of discomfiting naturalism.
Johnson saunters through his thankless investigator role (though not exactly a mega-watt star, it’s hard to imagine that he was jazzed about the project) and honestly, the procedural bits are kind of a drag. These scenes, which take place at police headquarters between mom-on-son cuddling and hot-blooded murders, play like an informational video on the dangers of hitchhiking in the mid-70s. Here, we get some loose statistics and hear morally loaded lines like, “It seems there are delinquent parents as well as delinquent children.” It’s best to think of these moments as the medicine just before the spoonful of sugar, or, the grindhouse equivalent of eating your vegetables.
HITCH HIKE TO HELL, as explained by Stephen Thrower on the disc, was made at a time when Berwick and his wife had begun a new production company to break into educational films, which sheds light on the movie’s commingling of the didactic and execrable. Social problems were the manure on which many exploitation films thrived: allowing them to remain somewhat permissible in their grubby aims so long as they remained on-topic and nodded toward embracing traditional morality as a cure-all. HITCH HIKE TO HELL is firmly, almost conspicuously in this mold, and is just one of many films of the era (such as 1977’s HITCH-HIKE, 1975’s TEENAGE HITCHHIKERS, etc.) that waves its finger at thumbing a ride while offering up gratuitous violence and some lite nudity.
Arrow Video presents HITCH HIKE TO HELL in a new 2K restoration from the original film elements with original uncompressed mono audio and two versions of the feature in 1.33 and 1.78. The former is closer to the film’s original aspect ratio, while the latter is obviously wider for a more contemporary feel. There’s no marked difference in visual quality between the two, and the film is as clean as it will ever be for a shot on 16mm drive-in staple.
Special features include a newly-filmed appreciation of Irvin Berwick by Nightmare USA author Stephen Thrower, a brand new video essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas exploring the dark side of hitch-hiking in the real world and on the screen, an extended interview with singer Nancy Adams (who provided the film’s title ditty), along with the original version of the song and alternate opening titles accompanied by the prototypical tune. Also included is the original theatrical trailer and press book. The disc comes with a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil, and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Heather Drain (first pressing only.) Truly a generous and context-heavy package.
A sun-dappled, motorized amble to depravity and death, HITCH HIKE TO HELL is primo California scuzz from the waning days of widespread hitchhiking. This no-budget exploitation feature from Irvin Berwick serves up sex, violence, and PSA-style factoids in a strangely charming pick and mix of cruelty and educational posturing. Arrow Video presents HITCH HIKE TO HELL in a brand-spanking-new 2K restoration with all the trimmings and is highly recommended for fans of bottom-of-the-barrel (in the best way) cult cinema.
HITCH HIKE TO HELL is available November 19th, 2019